Road to Vancouver: Tough group doesn't faze USA

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

Another World Cup, another Group of Death.

The USA women’s path to end a 16-year drought as World Cup champion will go through a tough road of foes.

A record field of 24 participants was divvied up into six groups during a draw ceremony Saturday in Ottawa, and placed alongside the USA in Group D were Australia, Sweden, and Nigeria. Given the breakdown of how teams were allocated into four pots for distribution, the results couldn’t have been much worse, just as was the case earlier this year when the USA men faced Ghana, Portugal, and eventual champion Germany in group play.

2015 Women's World Cup Draw:
Group A --
Canada, China, New Zealand, Netherlands
Group B -- Germany, Ivory Coast, Norway, Thailand
Group C -- Japan, Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador
Group D -- USA, Australia, Sweden, Nigeria
Group E -- Brazil, South Korea, Spain, Costa Rica
Group F -- France, England, Colombia, Mexico

Sweden is listed fifth in the FIFA rankings, Australia is 10th, and though Nigeria is 35th, it is generally regarded as the best team in Africa. The USA, Sweden and Nigeria are among the select teams that have competed in every Women’s World Cup since the inaugural event in 1991. Group D is the only group that includes three Top 10 teams.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to play good teams to win it, and at some point you’re going to match up with quality opponents,” said head coach Jill Ellis, who took over the team in April and is facing her first test in a major competition at the senior level. “We’ll be ready. We’ve got about five or six months to get prepared and ready to go.”

Women's World Cup: Schedule

The USA plays its first two games in Winnipeg -- against Australia June 8 and Sweden June 12 -- and closes out group play June 16 in Vancouver with Nigeria. Only the Swedes have beaten the USA, but they have done so six times, most recently in March. They are the only team in the tournament that has beaten the USA in the last two years and are coached by former Swedish international Pia Sundhage, who coached the USA from 2007 to 2012.

“Physically, it’s a demanding group, but we’ve got a lot of depth on our roster and we’ll be able to manage against some good teams with some good challenges,” said Ellis. “It’s probably the toughest group. That’s historically been the path the USA has taken, and we’re obviously going to embrace it.”

Six cities will stage matches, starting June 6 with the opening game between host Canada and China in Edmonton. The host got a manageable draw: the other two Group A teams are New Zealand and World Cup debutant Holland. China has tumbled since the days it ranked among the world’s best; it is 14th in the FIFA rankings, only three places ahead of South Korea, which has qualified for just the second time.

Group B is headed by Germany, the second-ranked team in the world and probably the strongest challenger to the USA’s chances. The Germans will be based in Ottawa and should have little trouble topping a quartet that includes Norway, a traditional power that hasn’t been very strong of late, and newcomers Ivory Coast and Thailand. Germany swept through qualifying with a perfect record while rolling up a 62-4 goal differential.

Defending World Cup champion Japan was placed in Group C with three debutante, Switzerland, Ecuador and Cameroon. The Japanese beat the USA in the 2011 final on penalty kicks following a 2-2 tie through regulation and extra time. They are ranked third in the world and are also the reigning Asian champions.

If the USA stumbles in group play and finishes second, it would likely play Brazil as Group E winner in the round of 16. South Korea, Spain and Costa Rica will likely slug it out behind Brazil, which has slipped to sixth in the FIFA rankings. After losing to the USA in the 2011 quarterfinals on penalty kicks, it lost to Japan in the Olympic quarterfinals two years ago.

Fourth-ranked France, a semifinalist in 2011 when it lost to the USA, 3-1, might get a stiff challenge from England (No. 7) for first place in Group F. The English women romped through their qualifying group with 10 straight wins and outscored opponents, 52-1. Mexico and Colombia round out what is probably second toughest group.

Under Sundhage, the USA women won Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012 and reached the final of the 2011 Women’s World Cup. When she departed to coach her native country, former Australia head coach Tom Sermanni took over; he was dismissed earlier this year when U.S. Soccer officials decided the team wasn’t making significant progress and certain players had lost belief in his ideas.

Ellis said all the right things about drawing a group of death and perhaps, in a different sense, so did USA forward Sydney Leroux.

Her tweet shortly after the draw: “Bring it on.”

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